Tired of all the bad news

While we can't deny the difficulites for so many people at home and overseas, it's important to take account of the positives, and to spread the Good News. I don't know who said this but; "No-one ever injured their eyesight by looking on the bright side." Blessings..

Friday, 20 July 2018

Follow the Camino

I walk around most of the day. Like nearly all people, I’ve been walking since I learned to walk as a toddler. I have become better at walking in the last few years in a bid to lose weight and by and large, it has paid dividends. To help in this regard, my family made me a present of a Fitbit to count my steps each day. The goal is 10,000. The idea of walking the Camino of St. James was somewhat intimidating to me in that it meant that I would have to walk from point a to point b and what would I encounter in between?  While I know it’s walking and not running, one has to be fit and relatively healthy because the average distance of 20 kilometres are covered each day and this can be in all weathers and over road, field, and mountain track, as well as some climbs and descents. 

I first heard of the Camino de Santiago de Compostella in 1999, when two teachers I knew went out there at the start of their retirement. Rather than wake up in late August wondering about not returning to school for the first time in many years, they walked the way of saint James into September and October.

Our decision to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostella was my bright idea. Carmel Keogh, a parishioner, had walked the Camino in Autumn 2016 and decided to raise money for the Parish Church restoration fund. While I was thanking her at Mass, I said maybe we should look at doing the Camino as a Parish for the Bi-Centenary in 2017? And there, it was out. Paddy Pender, our Parish Secretary asked me later on was I serious about this?

We began to look at what was involved and we got in touch with ‘Follow the Camino’ a group in Suffolk St who would help us to organise and plan the pilgrimage. From that far back, it never looks dangerous and while the group came and did an information night with us, it still seemed so far down the road. Then time passes and we were walking together each Wednesday and Thursday training and raising awareness of the 200th anniversary of the opening of the Church and the Camino we were going to do. People began to come on board and express interest in doing the walk with us. It still seemed unreal because all of us have our own lives and commitments and the Camino was still ‘out there.’

We would walk on Wednesdays from the Four Courts Luas stop along the tracks up to Infirmary Road and return via Montpellier Hill and Arbour Hill or back along the tracks at Benburb Street and Smithfield. A nice walk which wasn’t terribly challenging but steadily we built up the miles over the winter and spring. Our team of walkers were myself, Pauline, Paddy, Linda, and Carmel and not forgetting Jasper. We didn’t tell Jasper that he probably wouldn’t be able to travel to Spain with us. All the while there were other enquiries and eventually the number committed to the Camino settled at ten and Follow the Camino made the necessary bookings for us in terms of transfers and hotels. I believe we did the sensible thing and made sure we had a place to rest and recover each evening.

The trip suddenly got very real for me when Paddy and I went over to Suffolk Street to the ‘Follow the Camino’ office to pay the balance of the bill and then received our Camino kits. It hadn’t fully sunk in for me perhaps because I was distracted with so many other day-to-day things but there was an excitement building at the same time. I tried to imagine what the walks would be like and the food along the way. I wondered would there be a place to say Mass for the group each evening and a what the photo opportunities would be like along the routes. I was a total Camino newbie so I really only imagined what would be in store.

In preparation for our Parish Bi Centenary Mass on August 25th, we visited each area of the parish for house and family blessings. As we went around the areas on those fine summer evenings, we got to meet most of the neighbours and families. Many of the neighbours set up small altars and put out statues and holy pictures. And there was also hospitality and a cuppa at the end of the prayers. We were also reminded that some of the older parishioners who were housebound would like to see us and so It was a blessing to celebrate the Sacrament of the Sick with them. People were texting each other on the balconies of the flats to tell them that we were around and I was called up to visit different homes and even to bless cars and pets!

We celebrated the Mass of thanksgiving on August 25th with invited clergy, friars, religious, parishioners and friends. It was a lovely occasion lead by the Archbishop of Dublin and we continued the celebrations in George’s Hill with hospitality, chat, and the cutting of a 200-anniversary cake. Everyone was so kind and supportive along the way, especially all during the painting and the decorating the ceremonies were a lovely backdrop to preparing to travel out to Spain to walk the Camino.

The final preparation days leading to our departure for Spain were spent getting advice and help from Dominic and Ruth from Army Bargains on Little Mary Street. This place has been there for years and Dominic couldn’t have been more helpful in terms of boots, socks, leggings, t-shirts, rain gear, back packs, and walking poles. As we were being looked after by Follow the Camino; we didn’t need overnight camping gear but Dominic was keeping an eye on all we needed for the long walks. In truth, he didn’t travel to Santiago with us this time in person but he came in spirit and never let us down.

And so, September 7th arrived and we all met in Dublin airport for a morning flight to Vigo on a Ryanair 738. We were delayed pushing back and delayed leaving Dublin but a good tailwind aloft meant that we made nice time en-route down to Vigo. The approach into the small airport in Vigo is very mountainous and you could feel the drop every so often as we descended. It took us no time to park at the stand and disembark the plane but as there was only one officer checking our passports, we passed the passport control very slowly indeed. We were met by the representative of Follow the Camino and soon we were onto the coach and driven to Tui to the Hotel Colon where we settled in and unpacked.

Most of us took a walk around the old town of Tui and got our pilgrim passports stamped in the stunning cathedral there and myself and Br Jeremy went to Mass that evening in the Dorothean Nun’s convent chapel. We freshened up and all met for our evening meal outside as the evening was fine and warm. Amazing how a one hour and forty-minute flight south can mean the difference between eating in and eating al fresco in September. It was an opportunity for us all to gather and meet since some of us hadn’t met before. After a nice meal and a beer, we all headed in different directions for bed and made preparations to begin our walk in the morning. What to leave in the suitcase for transportation to the next hotel? What essentials to take in the back pack which may be needed for the journey along the way? And so off to sleep.

The next morning, Friday September 8th the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary we met for breakfast at 7.30 am and tried to eat well in preparation for a walk of around 20 kilometres. I was able to eat as I’m usually not good at breakfast especially if I’m a little nervous. Jeremy set off an hour earlier as he had threatened and took some supplies with him to eat ‘on the hoof.’ After breakfast it was time to go and I must say after we posed for a photo and posted it on our parish Facebook we said a prayer to the Guardian Angels and Saint James and headed off on the first morning of our Camino adventure. I felt emotional as I began to walk and up the street and towards the sunrise. The streets were only waking up as we left the periphery of the town and as we walked the morning got brighter and brighter. It was a lovely feeling to be walking together and we all settled into a good pace as we headed out of Tui and made for O Porrino.

Along the way we made pit stops to drink water or eat something. Essentially, what we learned early on was to look out for stamps so we could mark our pilgrim passports. This is important to show the Pilgrim Office in Santiago de Compostella that we had passed by all these places along the Camino and really did walk all that way. In many cases stopping to rest is very important too as eating and hydration is very necessary to keep up the energy. From the early kilometres on the walk we began to meet other pilgrims with the salutation; “Bon Camino!” We found ourselves sharing bread with Dutch, German, American, British, Australian, and fellow Irish pilgrims along the way. The last leg of the walk on the first day seemed endless as the route took us through an industrial estate and along a very long road. We were very relieved to arrive at the hotel in O Porrino and settle into our hotel rooms. They were very nice actually and gave us a room to have Mass together later in the evening. We freshened up and went out in the early afternoon for Tapas before returning to the hotel to rest and for Mass and the evening meal.

The second morning we were pleasantly surprised to sit down to a fine breakfast and also doggy-bags to take on our walk. For some, there was an added surprise as Barry’s Tea was available for the Irish connoisseur away from home. We headed off on our second full day north out of O Porrino and this leg was going to take us 22 kilometres up to Arcade.

We again encountered many other walkers along the way and also when we stopped for a rest. Even when the language was a barrier, the fact that we were all walking, tired, and sore, the Camino is a great meeting point; we all have something in common. We met Grace from the Netherlands who told us she was attacked by a dog on the previous day and was bitten quite badly. The owner of the dog took her into the house and afterwards brought her to a hospital for the wound to be dressed. A dreadful experience for anyone at any time but no doubt compounded by walking the Camino.

We all chatted together I began to hum the famous song ‘Grace’ based on the tragic relationship of 1916 Rising leader, Joseph Mary Plunkett with Grace Gifford. I told the story and the group insisted I sing it for her which I did and as we walked we sang the song. She got me to sign my name on her back pack and since then she has blogged the meeting with the ‘singing priest’ and the Irish group! The next day we stopped in the woods where in a clearing there were two lads selling leather bracelets and Camino trinkets. One of them had a guitar and as soon as he realised we were Irish, he gave us a fine rendition of the Wild Rover. We also met Kirsten from Germany who walked with us for a while as we all shared our stories. Though we were only away for a week, it was still comfort food to meet other Irish pilgrims as we walked along and it was good to meet pilgrims from Blanchardstown and Ballinteer, as well as Roscommon and Cavan. The scallop shell of the Camino illustrates the myriad roads all going towards Santiago de Compostella, and it also shows me the many different people one can meet along the way.

Leaving Arcade was one of the nicest parts of the walk as it was a beautiful morning and we all gathered before the old Roman bridge crossing over the wide Verdugo river. I took out my camera to take some pictures. An old woman was selling Camino shells from the door of her house and I bought one as I passed along the way. Traditionally the scallop shell tells a story; it is used as a food utensil; a spoon, a soup bowl, and something to cut food with. We climbed up through the old town along pretty streets and hanging baskets. All along the way we saw ripe grapes hanging on vines and some people harvesting them and we also saw large pumpkins growing in fields. People would say Galicia is like Ireland in its countryside but with the vines and pumpkins outdoors everywhere you go, you would soon realise that we are a little further south.

Given the time of the year and the location, the walks were manageable and while the days were fine, the sun wasn’t too hot. We were glad to stop and rest in different places and have some water or iced tea and something to eat. We were surprised to find some places very busy with walkers and pilgrims and it was at times like this that we were glad to have travelled with a group like ‘Follow the Camino’ where we knew that we had a place to stay each night. Meeting together in the evenings after a rest, to gather for Mass, and then for a meal was a blessing where we could give thanks for a good day. At Mass we held our parishioners in prayer as well as all who asked us to remember them along the way. It was also good to pray with other people we met as we walked. We had seen a group of women from the United States on our first night and over the days we encountered them on the roads and tracks. One morning we met them over breakfast in Pontevedra and they called me over to their table. One of the women must have heard I was a priest so she asked me to pray with them as it was her birthday. So there and then, across the breakfast table we joined hands and prayed together. Obviously, the day was significant and poignant for her on the Camino away from home, but also because it was September 11th. We prayed for all who died as a result of the terrible attacks on New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania in 2001. We all realised that we were going on to Caldas De Reis that day and we arranged that they join us for Mass in the evening as we would be staying in the same hotel. So similar to each evening, we gathered in one of the hotel rooms and celebrated Mass at the end of our day to give thanks and pray.

Sharing our stories as we walked along the way with the group we travelled with and also meeting others and walking with them was very special. There were moments which were charged with emotion; like the times we saw way points covered with prayer intentions written in different languages. At each way point, each of us would place a stone or a shell to either offer a prayer for someone, or to let go of painful memory and leave it behind. We also came across a place where someone had left behind walking shoes and walking stick. One of our group said that this can often be a sign that a person just couldn’t go on. This was less than 25 kms from Santiago de Compostella.

When we reached Santiago, tired, emotional and sore feet, we made our way first to the Cathedral where we were directed to the Pilgrimage Centre. We met a fussy attendant who was annoyed we were late. With a bit of Irish coaxing, he agreed to process our passports and told us to come back later for collection. All I wanted was to get to the hotel and shower. Then, I looked forward to changing into my Franciscan habit and going to the cathedral for evening Mass.

As we left the pilgrim centre, we saw Grace in the distance walking towards us on the road. We all spotted her almost at the same time. Spontaneously, I started to sing the chorus of Joseph Mary Plunkett’s Grace which we had introduced to her some days before early on in our Camino. She looked around for the sound and when she saw us coming towards her she dropped to her knees. Such was the emotion and the joyful tension, the relief, and the tears of reaching our goal. We all hugged and chatted and wiped the tears from our eyes. We got to the hotel and freshened up and almost immediately headed for the cathedral for evening Mass.

I checked in the office of the magnificent cathedral showing my Celebret (valid credentials of ordination) to the sister at the entrance to this beautiful sacristy. Straight away, I met fellow priests; pilgrims all who had reached Santiago de Compostella in the days before. While the Mass was in Spanish, I was asked to say part of the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass in English. At the end of the Mass, I was moved by Robert and Anne, Yvonne (an Irish Girl who travelled on her own) and Carmel coming over to me delighted to see me on the altar. They were saying how much of a privilege it was to be part of the group. I didn’t tend to notice it during the Mass that this would have an emotional effect on others too.

The following day, September 14th, the Feast of the Exaltation of Holy Cross, our last day, we came to the Pilgrims Mass and again it was very powerful. This time the place was packed to capacity. Pilgrims were standing along the aisles and all around the back and sides. At the end of the Mass, again which I concelebrated, they lit and swung the giant thurible to honour the feast day. This amused me as I had seen television footage from many years ago of the famous thurible being swung when Pope John Paul II had visited the cathedral. I was also amused when many of the priests concelebrating jumped to the front of the sanctuary to take photos and movies on their cell phones of the thurible going back and forth being swung by uniformed acolytes and assistants. Many of the pilgrims were doing the same from the body of the church, filming as the smoking thurible went left to right and right to left.  Afterwards we went to pay a visit to the church of the Franciscan Friars and spent some time there. Off then for a small bit of souvenir shopping.

And that was the end of the Camino. Leaving the cathedral and leaving the city I was genuinely sorry that it was all over. I’m a home-bird. For me, the nicest journey is the journey home but I can’t put my finger on what it is, but this time it was like I was happy to be a pilgrim among other pilgrims. Many people can say categorically that if they didn’t like a place, they would be reluctant to return. There are one or two places I wouldn’t be that keen to return to. But the moment we landed back in Dublin, when asked would I do the Camino again, I was saying; ‘absolutely’. God willing some of us are going off again, this time to Viterbo later in the year in Italy to walk down to Rome.

The Beatitudes of the Pilgrim
Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that the “Camino” opens your eyes to what is not seen.
Blessed are you pilgrim, if what concerns you most is not to arrive, as to arrive with others.
Blessed are you pilgrim, when you contemplate the “Camino” and you discover it is full of names and dawns.
Blessed are you pilgrim, because you have discovered that the authentic “Camino” begins when it is completed.
Blessed are you pilgrim, if your knapsack is emptying of things and your heart does not know where to hang up so many feelings and emotions.
Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that one step back to help another is more valuable than a hundred forward without seeing what is at your side.
Blessed are you pilgrim, when you don’t have words to give thanks for everything that surprises you at every twist and turn of the way.
Blessed are you pilgrim, if you search for the truth and make of the “Camino” a life, and of your life a “way”, in search of the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Blessed are you pilgrim, if on the way you meet yourself and gift yourself with time, without rushing, so as not to disregard the image in your heart.
Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that the “Camino” holds a lot of silence; and the silence of prayer; and the prayer of meeting with God who is waiting for you.